Red Forest, Chernobyl in April 2016

The Red Forest in April 2016, prior to the fire, showing the regeneration of understorey vegetation and deciduous trees which had occurred over the 30 years since the Chernobyl accident.

Scientific challenge: 

Following the 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, an area (4-6 km2) of coniferous forest was killed by high levels of radiation. The affected area has become known as the 'Red Forest' as the trees' needles turned red (more accurately, orange) in 1986 prior to their death. The Red Forest subsequently regenerated with deciduous trees, which are less sensitive to radiation than coniferous species, and understorey vegetation.

This area is the most anthropogenically contaminated radioactive ecosystem on earth and reports of effects on its wildlife continue to be published. In July 2016 there was a severe fire in the Red Forest with local reports that approximately 80% of the forest was burnt.

This fire presented a unique opportunity to study: (i) the effect of fire on radionuclide mobility/bioavailability; and (ii) the impact of radiation on the recovery of forest ecosystems exposed to another stressor (i.e. fire).

Red Forest, Chernobyl in September 2016

The Red Forest was red again in September 2016 but this was fire damage, not the effects of radiation.

Project overview: 

CEH leads a NERC urgency grant (entitled ‘RED FIRE’, Radioactive Environment Damaged by fire: a Forest In REcovery) collaborating with the universities of Salford and Nottingham, Ukrainian collaborators (Chornobyl Center and Ukrainian Institute of Agricultural Radiology) and the Norwegian University of Life Sciences

RED FIRE is addressing two scientific hypotheses:

  • The fire will have increased the mobility of radionuclides in the Red Forest
  • Radiation will impact on ecosystem recovery from the effects of the forest fire

To address the second hypothesis we are studying a range of organisms from soil biota to large mammals.

RED FIRE will work in collaboration with our ongoing NERC-funded TREE project, which has an established work programme within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

Prof Nick Beresford in the Red Forest, Chernobyl in September 2016

Prof Nick Beresford, CEH, on fieldwork in the Red Forest, Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (September 2016).

Method: 

Fieldwork began in September 2016 with subsequent field trips throughout 2017. Contamination in the Red Forest is highly spatially heterogeneous, allowing studies to be conducted across contamination gradients. We are uniquely placed to undertake these studies within RED FIRE as we have samples (and survey results) that we collected from the Red Forest in 2015 and early in 2016, prior to the fire event.

The objectives of RED FIRE are to:

  1. Assess the direct impact of fire on radionuclide behaviour by determining change in radionuclide availability before and after the fire, and also any time trend in fractionation, solubility and mobility (down the soil profile) over c.12 months following the fire.
  2. Determine if there is any impact of radiation level on the recovery of the forest ecosystem following damage by the fire.

The RED FIRE team, in collaboration with our Norwegian project partner and Ukrainian sub-contractors, will study a range of radionuclides (Cs-137, Sr-90, Pu-isotopes, Am-241) and 'hot' (fuel) particles within the Red Forest. Our research will include the sampling and surveying of a range of wildlife (soil biological activity, plants and vertebrates). We have also deployed wildlife camera traps and bioacoustic recorders throughout the Red Forest.

As in the video below, we will also use unmanned aerial vehicle (drone) technology to study the changing vegetation cover following the fire and to derive a novel high resolution contamination map for the Red Forest area.

Impact:

RED FIRE has highly significant international relevance:

  1. There is an increasing need for improved understanding of the effects of radiation on wildlife/ecosystems as countries begin to implement international recommendations that the environment per se should be protected from authorised releases of radioactivity
  2. Forest ecosystems are not only dominant in Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, but also in the area of Japan affected by the Fukushima accident

Forest fires are a major concern for the Japanese local government dealing with the Fukushima accident aftermath and attempts have been made to assess wildfire risk, for which new knowledge of the impact of fire on radionuclide bioavailability is essential. RED FIRE is highly likely to result in a series of high profile refereed papers and associated online datasets.

Funders: 

  • Natural Environment Research Council